Day 6

20 years later, cheerleading flick Bring It On's take on race and privilege remains relevant

Bring It On just turned 20. At its heart, the cheerleading flick is about cultural appropriation — and while some parts of the film are outdated, the conversation about race and privilege is as relevant as ever.

'Bring It On is a great way to start conversations about cultural appropriation,' says Katie Barnes

Cheer captains Torrance (Kirtsen Dunst), left, and Isis (Gabrielle Union), right, congratulate one another at the cheerleading nationals in a scene from the 2000 film Bring It On. (Universal Studios)

The cheerleading film that brought spirit fingers into popular culture is 20 years old. 

When Bring It On hit theatres in the late summer of 2000, it was assumed to be just another teen rom-com. But in its first weekend it was number one at the box office and went on to gross more than $90 million. 

Two decades later, the flick is a cult classic — and it's as culturally relevant as ever.

Bring It On, at its most basic, is about two rival cheerleading squads, San Diego's Rancho Carne Toros and the Clovers of East Compton in Los Angeles. The Toros are led by cheer captain Torrance, played by Kirsten Dunst.

"The Toros are a privileged group of kids who are used to winning, and are desperate to continue their winning streak," said Katie Barnes, a features writer with ESPN and huge Bring It On fan. And if you're questioning the definition of huge fan, Katie estimates that they've watched the film at least 300 times.

From the film Bring It On, members of the East Compton Clovers, foreground, crash a home football game for the Rancho Carne Toros. (Universal Studios)

The Clovers are led by Isis (played by Gabrielle Union) and, unlike the Toros, the Clovers have never been to a national cheerleading competition.

"The Clovers are very much set up in direct opposition to the Toros, both in terms of access to resources — East Compton is very clearly a poorer school than Rancho Carne — but also in terms of race. The Clovers are Black and brown, and that is very much a visible juxtaposition to who the Toros are," said Barnes.

Early in the film Torrance learns that the previous Toros captain stole cheers from the Clovers, and she is called out for what is, essentially, cultural appropriation. 

Cultural appropriation is when someone from a dominant culture, like the Toros, steals from a minority culture — whether it's fashion, music, or, in this case, cheers.

Racial significance 

In Barnes's view, this take on appropriation is the key thing that makes Bring It On so relevant today.

Torrance learns about the theft through her new teammate, Missy, who drives Torrance to L.A. to watch the Clovers.

"She sees another group of people doing [the] exact same cheer and frankly, doing it better and cooler. It's very obvious that it's theirs and it's not hers. And so for Torrance, it's just on her face that the entirety of her athletic career and the narrative that she has been told about who she is as an athlete and as a person is false," explained Barnes.

Katie Barnes, features writer with ESPN and fan of the film Bring it On. (Submitted by Katie Barnes)

Isis then confronts Torrance and Missy as they attempt to leave East Compton: "I said brr, it's cold in here, there must be some Toros in the atmosphere? I know you don't think a white girl made that s--- up."

"So there's this really interesting conversation underneath the direct text of the dialogue that's about complicity in appropriation and what it means now that you know. And right at the end of that scene, Torrance says again, 'Please ... I swear I didn't know.' And Isis's response is, 'Well, now you do,'" said Barnes.

So while Bring It On does not age well in some ways — hurling insults based on one's sexuality, for example — Barnes argues that the film is still important today.

"Bring It On is a great way to start conversations about cultural appropriation and about being complicit in systemic racism," explained Barnes.

"I think the most important lesson that is driven home by the film is that it didn't particularly matter to Isis that Torrance didn't know explicitly that those cheers were ripped off. After that confrontation at East Compton High, she did know and the implicit question then became, what was she going to do now?"

"I think for so many white Americans, and white people really internationally, that is the question ... now that you are aware of what you're seeing, what are you gonna do with that information now? And Bring it On asked us that question 20 years ago. And I think it's high time we try and answer it."

Written and produced by Laurie Allan.